Martine's Reviews > A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
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Mar 22, 08

bookshelves: british, crime, favourites, film, modern-fiction, postmodern, dystopia
Recommended for: people who don't mind a bit of a challenge
Read in March, 2008

A Clockwork Orange is one of those books which everyone has heard of but which few people have actually read –- mostly, I think, because it is preceded by a reputation of shocking ultra-violence. I’m not going to deny here that the book contains violence. It features lengthy descriptions of heinous crimes, and they’re vivid descriptions, full of excitement. (Burgess later wrote in his autobiography: ‘I was sickened by my own excitement at setting it down.’) Yet it does not glorify violence, nor is it a book about violence per se. Rather it’s an exploration of the morality of free will. Of whether it is better to choose to be bad than to be conditioned to be good. Of alienation and how to deal with the excesses to which such alienation may lead. And ultimately, of one man’s decision to say goodbye to all that. (At least in the UK version. The American version, on which Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation was based, ends on a less optimistic note.) In short, it’s a novella of ideas which just happens to contain a fair bit of violence.

It is also quite an artistic and linguistic achievement. Those who have seen the film will know that Alex (the anti-hero) and his droogs (friends) speak a made-up language full of Russian loanwords, Shakespearean and Biblical influences and Cockney rhyming slang. Initially this nadsat language was nearly incomprehensible to me, and my first response to it was bad. I found myself cursing Burgess, telling him that it wasn’t fair to put his readers through something like that. (If I want to read an incomprehensible book, I’ll read Finnegans Wake, thank you very much.) However, Burgess takes great care to introduce his new words in an understandable way, so after a few pages I got the hang of the nadsat lingo, and after a few more pages I actually began to enjoy it, because I’m enough of a linguist to go in for that sort of thing. I found myself loving the Russian loanwords, rejoicing when I recognised a German loanword among them and enjoying the Shakespearean quality of Alex’ dialogues. I finished the book with an urgent wish to learn Russian and read more Shakespeare. I doubt many readers will respond to the book in that way (not everyone shares my enthusiasm for languages and classical stuff), but my point is: you’ll get used to the lingo, and at some point you’ll begin to admire it, because for one thing, Burgess is awfully consistent about it, and for another, it just sounds so damned good. I mean, if you’re going to come up with a new word for ‘crazy’, you might as well choose bezoomny, right? Because it actually sounds mad. Doesn’t it?

Anyhow, there’s more to A Clockwork Orange than just philosophical ideas and linguistic pyrotechnics. The writing itself is unexpectedly lyrical, and not just when it deals with violence. Some of the most beautiful passages in the book deal with music. More specifically, classical music, because for all his wicked ways, Alex has a passion for classical music. He particularly adores Beethoven, an adoration I happen to share. I came away from the book thinking I might consent to becoming Alex’ devotchka (woman, wife) simply because he is capable of getting carried away by Beethoven’s Ninth and hates having it spoilt for him. He’s cultured, is Alex, and while his culturedness obviously does not equal civilisation and goodness (a point he himself is quick to make), it does put him a notch above the average hooligan. It’s the apparent dichotomy between Alex’ tastes in art and his taste for violence which makes him such an interesting protagonist and which keeps you following his exploits to their not entirely believable (but good) conclusion.

In short, then, A Clockwork Orange is an excellent book –- a bit challenging at first, but gripping and interesting and full of style and ideas. Not many books can claim as much.
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Comments (showing 1-30 of 30) (30 new)

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Carol I actually read it before I saw the movie, back in my early 20s...I felt 'all that' because I knew about the slang! Love your review (as usual!)


Martine Thanks, Carol! I can see why knowing the slang would have made you feel cool. I feel slightly cooler for having read the book myself. :-)

I first saw the film when I was nineteen. It was a fairly traumatic experience -- not because of the violence, but because of the slang. Here I was, thinking I spoke a pretty decent English, and then I saw this film, and suddenly I was convinced that my English had to be really bad, as I could barely understand a word I heard. I was so relieved when I discovered the slang used in the film wasn't English at all, but rather some Slavic-inspired made-up language...

I guess it's about time I saw the film again. It's been ages.



Sandi Fabulous review, Martine. I'm about one page into this. I think I may need to read the first few pages out loud just to get used to the language.

I actually spent years thinking I had read the book because the movie made such an impact.


Martine Thanks, Sandi! I hope you enjoy the book. Try to see the language as a challenge rather than a distraction. Really, it's all about the language!


Sandi I have the Norton edition that put the 21st chapter back in. The foreward that Anthony Burgess wrote in 1986 is pretty interesting.

I don't think the language will be a problem. I'm not going to dwell on it and just try to read it conversationally. But, I think I do need to finish "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" before I really get into "Clockwork Orange" because it poses some of the same kind of language issues. If one of them were simple English, it would be easy to read both. But, two books that require re-wiring my language centers is a bit much.


message 6: by Steve (new)

Steve Martine, great review. I didn't know there were different editions! And since so many years have passed, I can't remember which edition (year) I read. I do know that I saw the movie first, and it provided stucture, I guess. I probably did what Sherri did (going through the glossary first). One thing that struck after reading your review, that if you are a fan of this book -- and author, you owe in to yourself to read Nothing Like the Sun .


Martine Thanks, Steve. Going through the glossary first probably was a good idea. Unfortunately, my version (the recent Penguin edition) came without a glossary. Then again, I seldom needed it, as Burgess takes care to introduce all his new words in a sensible manner.

I've added Nothing Like the Sun to my to-read list. Thanks for the suggestion! I'll probably read The Malayan Trilogy first, though, as it's been sitting on my shelf for a while casting reproachful glances at me. :-)

Sandi, I totally understand what you mean about reading two linguistically challenging books at the same time. I love a linguistic challenge, but that would be a bit much for me, too. I hope you do enjoy (or at least admire) reading it when you get round to it!


Sandi I started reading it this morning. The language isn't that big a deal. It's a heck of a lot easier than "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" because the slang is used with English grammar. I do pretty well with language. As an English Lit major, I had to read Chaucer in Middle English and I was crazy enough to take Intermediate French and Beginning Spanish in the same semester. I can't tell you how often I said yo when I meant to say je.


Lisa :-) Ooh, I hate the idea of reading a Nadsat glossary! In my opinion, the idea of the Nadsat is to indoctrinate you into Alex's world - by making you understand his language, you are made to sympathise with him. The language worms its way into your brain and by the end of the book, when you understand every word, you are faced with the terrifying realisation that this is how these thugs were allowed to become so prolific - they wormed their way in.

Horrowshow review - "A Clockwork Orange" made me want to learn Russian and read more Shakespeare too!


message 10: by Phillip (last edited Jan 06, 2010 09:17AM) (new)

Phillip I read it and instantly loved the Nadsat it is like a cooler version of Shakespeare, and I found it easy to get the hang of I also bought the entire works of shakespeare last week. Also about the whole language learning thing, the week after, I started learning Russian, because I made a strange decision to start. Now i have thought about it the language probably influenced me too, even though i didn't realise it.


message 11: by ♥Xeni♥ (new) - added it

♥Xeni♥ That's a wonderful review you wrote!

I read the first 20 pages of A Clockwork Orange and was almost repulsed by the Nadsat language. The ebook version I had, also included a short dictionary of Nadsat terms, so I printed that out and kept having to translate full sentences in order to even understand what was going on. But then after a while I realized I remembered some of the terms and it started flowing rather than being too strict to enjoy. You really grasped this feeling I had in your review!

I'm glad to know that you really got into the story; that'll help me keep reading even when I feel it's too difficult!


message 12: by Sean (new) - added it

Sean Mckenna Great review, mirrors many of my same thoughts that I have expressed to others when discussing the book.


message 13: by Meg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meg I got to chapter 4 and gave up, I went round for months saying it was awful. So one day I find myself in between books, and whilst I'm waiting for my next book through the post I said to myself finish it, so at least you can say you've read it. Thank god I did pick it back up, as soon as I started reading it I loved it. The language is an issue but I like a book that makes you work a bit harder, it's SO worth it in the end. Great review!


Talyn I really wish the author would have included an Appendix with the slang and its meaning. I just can't... deal with it.. What the newts is a droog! Plus my Mum says that I'm not allowed to read it, even though I tried before...


Stanislav The review speaks to me as well. Just note that Burgess did not really invent completely new words out of thin air. For example "bezoomny" actually makes sense to most speakers of Slavic languages since it consists of two words "bez" (without) "um" (mind/sense). My edition had a glossary, but I discovered it just when I finished the book. Oh well, not really needed. Just get through first few pages and you'll be good


message 16: by Alan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alan Hughes That was an excellent review. I share your thoughts on the language and text but would have expressed them less well.


Cecily Burgess didn't want the book to include a glossary, and I understand why: he wrote the book very carefully, and as several people have said, he constructs sentences so that the meaning is usually reasonably clear - and where it isn't, you go with the flow until it seeps into your consciousness (much as would happen if you were dropped into an environment where no one spoke your language).


Brenda First read the book in the early 1970s. One of my favourite books and movies of all time. The language was a bit of a struggle but as many others have said - just go with the flow. The book painted one scene, during Alex's reprogramming, quite vividly in my mind. As such, I was terrified the portrayal of this scene in the film would be too gruesome for me. But Kubrick, genius that he was, handled it beautifully.


message 19: by Vicki (new)

Vicki G I've never read it but my friend who's a Criminal Attorney did. I still can't figure out what his statement means though. We were discussing James Holmes, the guy who geared up like a damn warrior, went to the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and started shooting all those people - killing 12 and injuring 71 as well as setting bomb traps back at his house to kill the police or anybody who tried to get inside his house.
David's a Defense Attorney, they're the lawyers who defend people like James Holmes.
But he thinks the guy might "go all a Clockwork Orange on them when he gets into court and has to testify to what happened."
He saw the guy's pre-hearing but says that the "sudden state of mental illness that he appeared to be in is inconsistent with events leading up to the crime." He thinks the guy's been instructed by someone to feign a serious mental illness, which will accomplish a few things, the most important being to prevent him from qualifying to receive the death penalty, which still exists in Colorado and for which he already qualifies anyway b/c he killed a 6-y.o girl.


message 20: by Vicki (new)

Vicki G I can't figure out what he means when he said the guy will probably "go all a Clockwork Orange on them."


Annabel Thompson In regards to Nadsat, I've read the view expressed that it's meant to dull the ultraviolence somewhat; it helps that the ultraviolence occurs at the beginning of the book, before we've gotten used to the language. I like that view on it, as it takes away from the problem of commenting on violence and immorality without cashing in on how much fun it is.


Cecily Annabel wrote: "In regards to Nadsat, I've read the view expressed that it's meant to dull the ultraviolence..."

It certainly does (a feature that is rather negated in the film, when you SEE it), but I've also read that another reason was that he didn't want to tie the book to the teenage slang of a particular period, and that make sense as well, imo.


Abraham Johnson Thank you for not being the first person to write a negative review of this book. It's a big pet peeve of mine when people do that.


Bannedbooksbestreadsever Most challenging book. Language barriers. Ultra-violence and rape. I was lucky enough to get a English version that has the 21 chapter in which our main character changes for the GOOD in the end and wants to get married and have a son. So he grows up and become a member of society. ,-) happy ending. Otherwise I hated it. The movie was idiotic and demoralize women.


Bannedbooksbestreadsever @Vicki G. He means crazy. Til the red comes out like an old friend. (Kills them) he's completely bonkers! "As queer as a Clockwork Orange" which has nothing to do with time or sexuality. Hes mad you see. Hense the asylum and the treatments to straight him out.
only to turn back to the Ultra-violence.
In the end not the American Version but the original English version. Little Alex feels different because he's got morals now. He feels it. He's changing. He actually grows up and straighten out.
The movie was based on the American book which doesn't have the last chapter in it.
check it out.


Abraham Johnson Incidentally, the reason the lingo seems so familiar is that it has Slavic roots.


Cecily Abraham wrote: "Incidentally, the reason the lingo seems so familiar is that it has Slavic roots."

Ah, are you a Russian speaker?

Yes, Nadsat is based on Russian - plus a bit of Malay and Cockney. Burgess didn't want to use a contemporary teen slang, as the book would rapidly feel outdated. I'm guessing that's also one reason Alex like Ludwig Van, rather than, say, The Beatles or Elvis.


Abraham Johnson No, but a former work colleague, from Latvia is.


Abraham Johnson He's the one who told me that.


Abraham Johnson Wow, that was the wrong placement of the comma in that sentence.


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